By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Christians, throughout history, starting with the 1st century, have said that passages in the Hebrew Bible in the Christian Old Testament, such as Isaiah 53, are predicting a suffering messiah who will be executed and then raised from the dead. That’s exactly how Jesus’s followers thought of him-the future king of Israel. But, did Jesus himself teach others that he was that One, the future ruler, God’s messiah?
God’s Anointed One
The term messiah in Hebrew is meshiach, which literally means, ‘the anointed one’. This was originally a term used in the Old Testament to refer to one who was especially favored by God.
In particular, the term messiah was used for the king of Israel. He was called the anointed one because there was actually a coronation ceremony, where they would be anointed with oil.
In Jesus’s time, there was no longer a king in Israel. The land was controlled by a foreign power, the Romans. Nonetheless, some Jews hoped that God would send a future ruler to destroy the enemies and set up a new kingdom inspired by God, as Israel would once again become a sovereign state in the land.
It appears that some or even all of Jesus’s followers during his public ministry came to wonder or suspect that Jesus himself was that very future ruler, the future king of Israel.
That’s what the messiah was supposed to be—a future ruler who destroyed the enemy and set up God’s kingdom. And yet, the question remains that is this what Jesus himself said about himself?
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Four Gospels
As we reflect on this issue, it will be important to remember the sources of information we have when it comes to Jesus. The only one at hand are the four gospels: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Understandably, we can’t simply quote gospel verses to show what happened in the life of Jesus. The gospels are later accounts by people, who very much believed Jesus was the messiah, and who wrote their gospels in order to prove it. We have to, therefore, assess and evaluate them using a historical criteria.
Hence, when Jesus, in the Gospel of John, declares that he’s a divine being sent to Earth or when he says in Mark, that he is the messiah sent from God, it’s very difficult to know if these are, historically, the words that Jesus himself actually spoke.
Triumphal Entry and the Passover Feast
In fact, many of the gospel stories celebrating Jesus as the coming messiah are highly improbable as historical events. The Triumphal Entry, celebrated every year on Palm Sunday, is one such example.
The week before his death, Jesus is said to have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast, the largest festival on the Jewish calendar. It is when the population of Jerusalem would swell many times over, as pilgrims around the world came to celebrate.
The Passover feast itself was highly significant and not without its political overtones. The festival celebrated God’s act of deliverance when he saved his people, Israel, from a foreign oppressor under his servant, Moses.
It was based on what we find in the Jewish scriptures, in the book of Exodus.
The Book of Exodus
In the book of Exodus, we learn that the Children of Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for centuries. God raised a ruler, Moses, to deliver them from their foreign oppressor; he worked a great miracle at the Exodus and then eventually, he gave Israel control of the Promised Land.
And yet, Jews celebrating the event many centuries later, in Jesus’s day, were not doing so simply out of antiquarian interests.
Deliver His People
The festival was not just a religious festival to remember something that God had done centuries before. Jews who were celebrating the Passover were hoping that God would do the same thing again. He would deliver his people, Israel, from their foreign oppressor. But this time, the oppressor was not Egypt, it was Rome.
The Romans at the time, knew full well the incendiary nature of the celebration. Nonetheless, though they could not plausibly shut down the celebration in Jesus’s day, they did take serious measures to ensure that it would not lead to a massive uprising of Jews, who were again seeking to overthrow their political enemies.
Jesus’s Entry into Jerusalem
This was one time of the year when Pilate, the Roman governor, came into the city, and brought troops with him to make sure that Jews don’t get out of hand and begin to riot in order to get rid of them, the Romans.
With that background, think about the accounts in our later gospels, written decades afterward, in which Jesus allegedly rides into Jerusalem on a donkey with huge crowds turning out, cheering and proclaiming him to be the coming messiah, the king arriving in the name of the Lord, as they put down their cloaks and palm branches to welcome the coming messiah into Jerusalem. Is that historically plausible?
If something like that really happened historically, why wouldn’t Jesus have been arrested on the spot? That was precisely what the Roman authorities were bound and determined to prevent.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the account is almost certainly exaggerated, probably highly exaggerated.
Common Questions about Jesus, God’s Messiah
In Jesus’s time, there was no longer a king in Israel. The land was controlled by a foreign power, the Romans.
Jesus is said to have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast, the largest festival on the Jewish calendar.
Pilate, the Roman governor, had come into the city, and brought troops with him to make sure that Jews don’t get out of hand and begin to riot in order to get rid of them, the Romans.